What’s with our need to predict things? Predicting … forecasting that something will happen in the future. By definition a prediction is speculation about events that haven’t happened yet, so basically a confident “I’m pretty sure”.
Here in Canada we are in the early stages of a federal election and already polls are trying to predict the outcome by keeping us up to date on how popular the candidates are each day. I’m not sure why we need to know this when we have Facebook to tell us how unpopular each of them is. Perhaps elections would be too boring if we simply examined the issues and voted for the best candidate when we picked up the pencil in the polling booth.
The big player in the realm of pointless predictions is weather. Weather gets predicted on a continuous basis every day, ironically with various rates of success. If you have a weather app on your computer or phone … why? The app on my phone offers me predictions for the next two weeks, which is silly considering they’re wrong about what’s happening outside right now.
I’ve also noticed the forecasts shift continually. What’s the point of telling me what the weather will be like at four o’clock if it keeps changing until I can look outside and see for myself? That’s not a pre-diction, that’s a post-diction.
And then there’s the percentage thing. In this part of the world we get a lot of 40% chances of precipitation. What does that even mean? It’s obvious the meteorologists don’t want to commit: a 60% forecast is too risky, a 50% forecast is too wishy-washy, but a 40% forecast is just right – a definite maybe with generous wiggle room.
How many other jobs allow you to self-grade your work on a percentage basis?
“Yes sir, your car is ready to go – we got 60% of the oil change finished.”
“The chicken should be 70% cooked but don’t worry, 40% of our guests come back.”
“Your surgery was 100% successful and we are 50% sure it was your gall bladder.”
Gambling is another type of predicting: it’s a prediction that ignores the near certainty that you’re going to be wrong. I don’t gamble because I’m cheap. But if I did gamble I would only gamble once because I’m cheap. And anyway, I don’t want to be one of those annoying people who loiters at the counter buying lottery tickets while others wait endlessly to pay for their gas.
Betting on sports requires more skill than picking lottery numbers but it is still in the category of ‘long shot’. The only teams I know well enough to bet on are the ones I cheer for, but I could never deal with winning when they lose or losing when they win.
Predictions can also be moralistic. Song writers in the 60s famously wrote predictively about the emptiness of money, racism, and war (Dylan, Seeger). Novelists often take up the predictive task of warning against the pitfalls of human nature (Orwell, Tolkein). There are even predictions that remind us there is a price to be paid for ignoring righteousness (Hosea, Lewis).
There have been plenty of adherents through history who confidently and wrongly predicted the second coming of Jesus. Evangelicals in particular love to do this, but in spite of seeing all the ‘signs’ it is still just a guess based on a personal (negative) view of the world.¹ They’d be better off using the weather forecaster’s technique: There’s a 40% chance Jesus will return on October 4th!
There is always an avalanche of embarrassing predictions from celebrity religious types about immorality, politics, weather, you name it. Elements of christianity focus on negative predictions about things that will destroy the family unit, bring about natural disasters, and cause the downfall of the nation.
Christians are equally skilled at performance predictions: go to church and you’ll grow spiritually; have faith and you will be healed; give (to us) and you will be blessed. They can even take a pinch of information about you and predict where you will go when you die. There is always a degree of gnosticism when christians focus on predicting.
Needless to say, I’m very, very, very cautious when christians start talking about how ‘X’ is going to happen because God/Bible/pastor/I say so.
Contrary to the ‘media prophets’ we see today, biblical prophecy was never meant to be popular or profitable. Today’s loudest predictions are usually driven by egos and biases anxious to produce dramatic, new material.
The christian life is more than rule keeping, soothsaying, or fire insurance. We aren’t required to do drama, and we aren’t tasked with predicting God’s activities.
The most startling thing about predictions is that they rarely change the choices we make today. A snowy forecast for tomorrow doesn’t keep us from going to work; waiting for the end of the world doesn’t help us love God and neighbour more.
Yes, there is something to be said for wisdom that warns of consequences to our actions; that is healthy foresight. Jesus modelled this with a ministry of honest truth-telling but it was always immersed in love and grace today.
For disciples of Jesus our greatest purpose is the brilliant good news that God is with us. All of us. Here. Now. Walking by faith.
Of course theologian Walter Brueggemann says it better than me: “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”²
Reality. Grief. Hope.
The world needs less righteous clairvoyance and more holy awareness.
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¹ Even as I sit here, kooky posts on Facebook are warning us that vaccines are the ‘Mark of the Beast’.
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay